By Debbie Gardner
Assistant Managing Editor
EAST LONGMEADOW -- It's a long way from Sullivan's Mountain View in Hampden to a spot on The Food Network's prestigious culinary competition, Iron Chef America, but it's a journey that seemed destined for East Longmeadow native, Mike Lata.
You can watch this self-made culinary star do battle with competitor Iron Chef, Jose Garces, Dec. 5 at 10 p.m. on The Food Network.
Speaking from his restaurant, the 38-year-old self-trained chef and owner of FIG (Food Is Good), an American-style bistro in Charlotte, S. C., said it was behind the counter at that popular Hampden drive-in that he realized preparing food had a special draw for him.
"At 14, I got hired as a soft-serve takeout order taker, but I would watch the guys in the kitchen making cheeseburgers and grinders," Lata said. "I kept saying to [The Mountain view's former owner] Mr. Sullivan, 'I need to be back there.'"
At 15 he got his wish. "That very first day in the kitchen -- you know how you find a place where you belong -- it was high energy, the adrenaline," Lata, said.
But the sandwich board at the Mountain View wasn't Lata's only local training ground. Stints in the kitchens at the former Ponderosa Steak House on Boston Road, the Lift the Latch on Orange Street and Harley Hotel in Enfield Connecticut, where he "learned to flip eggs without breaking them -- a trick I used to perform at parties" -- just whetted his appetite for more cooking challenges. After a year at Northeastern University, this 1990 East Longmeadow High School graduate gave up the pursuit of a college degree and immersed himself in the quest for culinary excellence.
After tours of duty in the kitchens of a few Boston restaurants and the Black Dog Tavern on Martha's Vineyard -- "a fun place to work in the day" -- he landed in Atlanta, where he "ended up a line cook at a restaurant ... and worked my way up to chef du cuisine," he said. "I was writing menus and doing publicity this was the early 1990s and eventually I got enough notice that I got recruited to come to Charleston, South Carolina, to run a restaurant at the age of 25."
His trademark was a preference for working closely with local growers to develop dishes based on regional produce -- "something that's pretty common now, but at the time was pretty noteworthy."
It was a skill he said he learned at his Polish grandmother's side, as she tended the family garden back in East Longmeadow.
"She'd grow all these great vegetables and I'd help her harvest them and then go in the kitchen and help her cook," Lata said. "That stuck with me."
In 2001, Lata stepped out of the daily restaurant rat race, traveled abroad and spent "six to seven months cooking in various kitchens in France."
A year later, back in Charleston, he opened FIG.
In 2009, his impressive skills in the kitchen were recognized by what Time magazine refers to as "the Oscars of the food world," and Lata was chosen as "Best Chef, Southeast" by the James Beard Awards.
In May of this year, Iron Chef came calling. "I was asked a couple of years ago to put my name in the hat, but I felt my business was too young," Lata said. "Committing to that means you're gong to take on this burden for the next several months. You're hoping you're not going to make a fool of yourself on TV [and] you've got to prepare your business for your absence."
He chose two of the cooks from FIG to accompany him to the Iron Chef taping, which took place this summer in New York. "I could have chosen a couple of ringers -- buddies from New York City -- but if I didn't take my team with me, I was selling us short," he said.
Of competing on Iron Chef, Lata said, "It was real and live. What you see is how it goes. The pressure is real; there are tons of twists and surprises. If you're an adrenaline junkie [like me] it's the mother lode."
He wouldn't say much about the competition with Iron Chef Garces, except that the secret ingredient in their challenge was "sparkling wine."
"We identify the ingredient and create a dish around it. We have that ability [as chefs]," Lata said. "It was a challenge, but it was a challenge for our competition, too."
He's hoping long-lost friends and acquaintances in the area will tune in to see the outcome.
"I've got a lot of friends and family up there [in the Springfield area]. Facebook connects some of us, but not all. It's nice to know that people I grew up with are going to hear about this and hopefully, watch it."
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